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Personal park

'Personal park'? South Salt Lake leaders question neighborhood's exclusive access to city land

By Katie McKellar | Deseret News

Neighbors call it a "secret gem."

Nestled in the heart of a South Salt Lake neighborhood is Mill Creek Pond — a treasure trove of wildlife teeming with migratory birds and delicate wetlands. It's an area that surrounding homeowners take pride in caring for as they have for the past five years.

But recently the pond has raised the eyebrows of some members of the South Salt Lake City Council, who are questioning whether a lease agreement between the city and the neighborhood's homeowners association has given the neighborhood unfair exclusive access to city- and county-owned property that could act as public space.

Additionally, some city leaders are concerned some residents have been treating city-owned land as their own backyards, with some having built decks and boardwalks on Redevelopment Agency property bordering the county-owned pond.

When the lease agreement between the HOA and South Salt Lake was signed in 2013, the city gated off the access point to the pond, near 540 E. 3195 South, and gave neighbors a key.

Councilman Mark Kindred, acting as chairman of the city's Redevelopment Agency at a council meeting Wednesday night, questioned whether the neighborhood has been using the area as a "personal park."

"I think the HOA has done a great job maintaining it, I'm not doubting that - but this is (city) owned property that is restricted to the members of the HOA and the surrounding property owners," Kindred said.

The meeting was the beginning of talks to possibly change the lease agreement currently in place with the neighborhood with an aim to increase public access to the area.

The discussion brought a crowd of concerned neighbors, who cautioned city leaders against opening the area to the general public, which they said would bring homeless camps, vandalism and other crime to the hidden wooded area — something the pond is no stranger to.

"It would be a big mistake to open that up," said Janet Mayo, whose house abuts the south end of the pond. She said before the gate was installed, she'd see people sleeping on the banks, garbage in the water and drug dealing outside her back window.

"It's a good thing that gate is locked," she said, adding that it would be a difficult area for police to patrol. "It's good for the community. It's good for the police. It's good for South Salt Lake."

"Before they gated it off, it was a perfect camping ground," said Steve Norr, president of the neighborhood's HOA and chairman of the Mill Creek Pond Action Committee, which maintains the area.

South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood also lives in the neighborhood. Her house abuts the creek that feeds into the south end of the pond, though she's not a member of the HOA that maintains the pond. She said in an interview Thursday that she witnessed on more than one occasion police chasing suspects of robberies through the wooded area behind her house before the pond was gated off in 2013.

"My concern is from a perspective of trying to police it," the mayor said, adding that because the city's property is so close to neighborhood backyards, "I don't think it's an area that could be utilized as a public park."

Judy Mincher, who has lived there for 20 years, said if the area was opened to the public, anyone could walk right into her backyard.

"If they walk by my deck, I could shake their hand," she said. "And that's kind of scary. I wouldn't know these people."

It's not the first time the neighborhood has pushed back against plans to bring more foot traffic to the pond. In 2009, residents rallied together to protest an urban trail through the area.

Councilman Ben Pender suggested keeping the gate open during the day and closing it at night to help prevent illicit activities.

"All of the community should be able to enjoy the property — it's a beautiful piece of property back in there," he said, adding that he sees it as an "extension" of Fitts Park.

But as Norr walked along the pond Thursday, motioning to houses and backyards just feet away from the bank, he asked: "Does this look like a park to you?"

"We take a lot of pride in this area," Norr said, looking across the pond where scores of ducks and geese swam. He said if the area became a park, it would create a "huge concern" for neighbors and cause migratory birds to stop seeking refuge at the pond.

"It's a secret gem," said Dallas O'Very, who moved with his wife, Alice, to the neighborhood about a year ago, ecstatic to find a nature preserve in the heart of the city. They, too, worry about safety concerns if the area is opened to the public.

Councilwoman Portia Mila, who represents the neighborhood, said her top concern is how general access to the area would impact the residents, and she isn't supportive of opening up the area as if it were a park.

But Kindred, Pender and Councilman Shane Siwik said they want to explore alternatives to the current lease and in some ways increase public access.

"It's a very beautiful area, and I agree with the residents about the importance of maintaining the wetland and the wildlife that exist there," Siwik said. "But it's also important to recognize the entire community pays (taxes) for that, and there needs to be some equity that is fair to everybody."

Siwik and Kindred expressed interest in working with the neighborhood to propose ways to access the area without opening the gates to the general public — perhaps through increased tours for classrooms. As part of the current lease agreement, a classroom tours the area at least once a year, Kindred said.

But there's another issue Kindred said will need to be addressed: Some residents appear to have built decks and boardwalks on city-owned land — which was not allowed as part of the 2013 lease agreement.

Kindred said he learned of the area when a neighbor, Bob Lamone, told him in an email that Norr had years ago built a deck on city-owned property. "Your job as (Redevelopment Agency) chair is to protect city-owned land," Lamone wrote in the email.

Kindred said if there is any private use of city-owned land, city officials will need to look into the issue and address it.

Norr, who noted he and Lamone have had political differences, said when he moved into his house 18 years ago, there was already a deck in place and thought there would be no problem with improving it, but he said if city officials want it gone, he'll take it out.

"That deck means absolutely nothing to me," Norr said, adding that he cares more about protecting the pond. "Keeping this area secure means everything to this neighborhood."

Council members didn't take action on the lease agreement Wednesday but said they'd like to schedule tours of the area and talk more with neighbors to find a solution.